Clonmines is one of my favorite spots in Ireland and one we were not supposed to go to. Sshh! We were driving beside the road and said, “what is that!” and we just had to see it. It turned out to be a medieval town, established by William Marshal, the great knight and Lord of Leinster, as an alternative port to one already established. What’s incredible about Clonmines is the way it is so intact.
One of the things we remarked upon as we were traveling throughout the country was how few medieval sites there were. Clearly there is a variety of reasons for this, which I won’t go into today. Clonmines survival may in part be due to the fact that it is on private land. To be perfectly frank, we trespassed, if inadvertently, to take these pictures.
The town of Clonmines covers twenty-nine acres and what is standing today includes two tower houses, which are kind of Irish castle, and one of which is incorporated into a more modern dwelling. There’s also a fortified seventeenth-century house; the parish church of St. Nicholas; another fortified church; and an Augustinian priory, that records show was established around 1317. These structures survived because they were built in stone. As you might expect, all the buildings of wood and clay have disappeared. Excavations have also revealed traces of medieval defensive ramparts.
William Marshal, the man responsible for establishing the town married Isabel de Clare. As you may recall from last week, her father, Richard de Clare, was known as Strongbow, and had done that deal with Diarmait, the King of Leinster. He had no sons, however, so Isabel, his eldest daughter, was a great heiress and her marriage to William Marshal made him ruler of Leinster.
A chronicle from 1684 states: “It is confidently reported that this Clonmines was a place of great trade in times past, and a harbor for shipping of indifferent bulk until the sand filled up the ancient passage … yet it sends two burgesses to Parliament still, and was governed by a portreeve and burgesses, but the charter and the contents thereof is worn out of memory long since.”
The Augustinian friary was part of a well-established tradition of Norman settlement which included the donation of lands to religious orders. The friary was central to the prosperity of the town and one of 22 Augustinian friairies founded by the Norman conquerors in Ireland.
With the Reformation, all religious houses were disbanded, Clonmines included, and the friary was incorporated into lands that had been held by Tintern Abbey. This was a Cistercian Abbey also founded by William Marshal and what we’ll be talking about next week.